The Sovereignty of God in Salvation
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“God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden.” [Romans 9:18]
THE Apostle Paul, in the beginning of this chapter,
expresses his great concern and sorrow of heart for the people of Israel, who
were rejected by God. This leads him to observe the difference, which God made
by election, between some of the Jews and others, and between the majority of
the Jews and the Christian Gentiles. In speaking of this he enters into the most
detailed discussion found anywhere in the whole Bible concerning the sovereignty
of God in electing some to eternal life, and rejecting others. He quotes several
passages from the Old Testament, confirming and illustrating this doctrine of
1. In the Book of Romans (9:9), Paul reminds us of what God said to Abraham, showing His election of Isaac before Ishmael, saying,-“At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”
2. He shows in verse twelve, what God had said to Rebecca, showing His election of Jacob over Esau; “The older will serve the younger.”
3. In the thirteenth verse, he refers to a passage from Malachi, “Jacob I
loved, but Esau I hated.”
4. In the fifteenth verse, to what God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
5. Finally, in the seventeenth verse, to what God said to Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
From what the apostle says in the text, he seems to have a special regard for the last two cited passages: to what God said to Moses in the fifteenth verse, and to what He said to Pharaoh in the seventeenth verse. God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” The apostle refers to this in the first part of our text. And we also know that it often said about Pharaoh, that “God hardened his heart.” And Paul seems to have focused on this fact in the latter part of the text; “and He hardens whom He wants to harden.” Now, from all of this we can observe two basic facts:
1. God's deals differently with men-He has mercy on some, and He hardens
When God is spoken of as hardening the hearts of some men, it is not to be understood that God was, in any way, the agent or direct cause of the hardening any man's heart. There is no positive act by God in the hardening process. To suppose any such thing would be to make God the immediate author of sin.
God is said to harden men in two ways:
A. First, by withholding the powerful influences of His Spirit, without which their hearts will remain hardened, and grow harder and harder-in this sense God hardens them, as He leaves them in their hardness.
B. Secondly, God hardens men, by providentially ordering things which, by the continued sin of man, becomes the reason for their hardening. Thus God sends His word and commands to men and women which, they then ignore, thereby, confirming their hardening. So the apostle Paul said, that the gospel message he preached was to some people “the smell of death."
So God is represented as sending Isaiah to the people, to “Make the heart of the people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” [Isaiah 6:10] Isaiah's preaching was, in itself, a message imploring these people to turn from their ways and follow God and His word. But their rejection of God’s message caused it to be it an opportunity to further harden their hearts.
God is said to harden men, that He put a lying spirit in the mouth of the false prophets. (2 Chronicles. 18:22). That is, He “allowed” a lying spirit to enter into them. And thus He is said to have told Shimei, a man from the same clan as Saul, to curse David. (2 Samuel 16:10). God did not directly command him to curse David; for it would be contrary to God's commands, for God has expressly said in His Word, “Do not . . . curse the ruler of your people.” [Exodus 22:28] But God “allowed” the evil to work in the heart of Shimei, and then sovereignly brought about the opportunity of stirring it up, as a manifestation of his displeasure against David.
2. The second fact that can be seen in our text is the basic truth that when God deals with mankind, He does so according to His sovereign will and pleasure: “God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden.”
This implies that God never shows mercy or denies it against His will, and that He is always willing to do it when He does it. A willing subject or servant, when he obeys his lord's commands, may never do any thing against his will, and yet it cannot be said that the servant does what he wills in the sense of the text, that is, according to his own will and pleasure. But in the case of God, it is His mere will and sovereign pleasure, which supremely orders the affairs of mankind. It is the divine will without any restraint, or constraint, or obligation.
The basic doctrine of our text is, that God exercises His sovereignty in the eternal salvation of men.
He is not only sovereign, but He has a sovereign right to do what He wants in the salvation of men. Nobody can charge Him with going beyond His right; He exercises the right which He has. This morning I propose to show four things,
I. What is God's sovereignty.
II. What God's sovereignty in the salvation of men implies?
III. That God actually does, in fact, exercise His sovereignty in the salvation of men.
IV. The reasons for this exercise of sovereignty.
I. What is God's sovereignty?
The sovereignty of God is His absolute, independent right of disposing of all creatures according to His own pleasure. Now let us focus on this concept of God’s “pleasure”
The will of God is called His good pleasure,
1. The will of God is called His good pleasure, in opposition to any constraint.
Men may do things voluntarily, and yet there may be a degree of constraint. A man may be said to do something voluntarily, that is, he does it by himself; and, all things considered, he may choose to do it; yet he may do it out of fear, and the very thing in itself is irritating to him, and truly against his own desires. When men do these things, it cannot be said that they did them according to their good pleasure.
2. The will of God is called His good pleasure, in opposition to its being under the will of another.
A servant may carry out his master's commands, and may do it willingly, and cheerfully, and may delight to do his master's will; yet when he does it, he does not do it of his own good pleasure. The saints freely do the will of God. They choose to do it; it is what satisfies their soul. Yet they do not do it of their own good pleasure and arbitrary will; because their will is under the direction of a superior will.
3. The will of God is called His good pleasure, in opposition to any personal obligation.
A man may freely do something which he is obliged to do; but it cannot be said that he acted from his own sheer will and pleasure. He who acts according to his own good pleasure, is at full liberty; but he who is under any personal obligation, is not at liberty, but is bound.
Now the sovereignty of God infers, that God has a right to dispose of all His creatures according to His good pleasure. And His right is absolute and independent. Men may have a right to dispose of some things according to their pleasure. But their right is not absolute and unlimited. Men may be said to have a right to dispose of their own goods as they please. But their right is not absolute; is has limits and bounds. They have a right to dispose of their own goods as they please, provided they do not do it contrary to the law of the state to which they are subject to, or contrary to the law of God. Men's right to dispose of their things as they will, is not absolute, because it is not independent. They do not have an independent right to what they want, but in some things depend on the community to which they belong, for the rights they may have; and in everything they depend on God. They receive all the rights they have to do anything from God. But the sovereignty of God means that God has an absolute, and unlimited, and independent right of disposing of his creatures as He pleases.
II. What does God's sovereignty in the salvation of men imply?
In answer to this question, I note, that it implies, that God can either bestow salvation on any man or woman, or refuse it, without any distortion to the glory of any of His attributes, except in the cases where He has been pleased to declare, that He will or will not bestow it-then He must be faithful to His word, He is now bound by His own promise.
As it stands today, it cannot be absolutely stated, that God can, without any distortion to the honor of His attributes, bestow salvation on any man or woman, or refuse it; because, concerning some, God has been pleased to declare either that He will or that He will not bestow salvation on them; and thus He is now bound by His own promise.
Now concerning those that God has been pleased to declare, that He will “never”
bestow salvation on them; that is, the non-elect, those who have been left in
their sins, and especially in the sin of unbelief in Christ-the sin against the
Holy Spirit. In their case, God is obligated; He cannot bestow salvation on
them, without violating His declared truth, since He has declared that He will
not save any who have sinned against the Holy Spirit.
God exercised His sovereignty in making these declarations. God was not obligated to promise that He would save all who believe in Christ; nor was He obligated to declare, that He who committed the sin against the Holy Spirit would never be forgiven. But it pleased Him to declare these things. And if God had not been pleased to obligate Himself in these cases, He could have still either bestowed salvation, or refused it, without dishonor to any of His attributes.
If there would have been any dishonor, to any of God’s attributes by bestowing or refusing to give salvation, then God would not in that matter act as absolutely sovereign. Because it then ceases to be a merely arbitrary thing. It ceases to be a matter of absolute liberty, and has become a matter of necessity or obligation. For God cannot do any thing that would dishonor any of His attributes, or be contrary to what is in itself excellent and glorious. Therefore,
1. God can, without discredit to the glory of any of His attributes, bestow salvation on any man, woman, or child, except on those who have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit.
This was the case when man fell, and before God revealed His eternal purpose and plan for redeeming men by Jesus Christ. It was probably looked upon by the angels as a thing utterly inconsistent with God's attributes to save anyone from the human race. It was utterly inconsistent with the honor of the divine attributes to save any of fallen mankind, as they were lost in their sins. It could not have been done had not God contrived a way consistent with the honor of His holiness, majesty, justice, and truth. But since God, in the gospel, has revealed that nothing is too hard for Him to do, nothing beyond the reach of His power, and wisdom, and sufficiency; and since Christ has provided the work of redemption, and fulfilled the law by obeying it completely, therefore there is no one, of all mankind, whom He can save that would ever cause any prejudice to any of His attributes, except those who have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit.
And even those who have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit could have been saved by Christ without going contrary to any of his attributes, had He not been pleased to declare that He would not. It was not because He could not have saved them consistent with His justice, and consistent with His law, or because His attribute of mercy was not great enough, or the blood of Christ was not sufficient to cleanse from that sin. But it has pleased God, for wise reasons, to declare that that sin shall never be forgiven in this world, or in the world to come. And so now it is contrary to God's truth to save such persons. But otherwise there is no sinner, no matter how great his sin has been, that cannot be saved by God, and without any prejudice to any of His attributes; if he has been a murderer, adulterer, or perjurer, or idolater, or blasphemer, God can save him if He pleases to, with no dishonor to His glory.
Even though persons have sinned for a long time, have been obstinate, have committed monstrous sins a thousand times, even till they have grown old in sin; if they have sinned while under the clear preaching of the Word; if they have been backsliders, and have sinned after receiving numerous solemn warnings and strivings of the Spirit, and after receiving numerous mercies of God’s common providence: though the danger of such is much greater than of other sinners, yet God can save them if He pleases, for the sake of Christ, without any prejudice to any of his attributes. He may have mercy on whom He will have mercy. He may have mercy on the greatest of sinners, if He pleases, and the glory of none of His attributes will dishonored in the least. Such is the sufficiency of the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ, that none of the divine attributes stand in the way of the salvation of any of them. Thus the glory of any attribute did not at all suffer by Christ's saving some of those that crucified Him.
1. God may save anyone He pleases, without prejudice to the honor of His holiness.
God is infinitely holy. The heavens are not pure in His sight. His eyes are too pure to look on evil; and cannot tolerate wrong. And if God should in any way tolerate sin, and should not give proper evidence of His hatred of it, and displeasure at it, it would be a distortion of the honor of His holiness. But God can save the greatest sinner without giving the least approval of sin. If he saves one, who for a long time has resisted the calls of the gospel; if he saves one who, fighting against the truth, has been a pirate or blasphemer, He may do it without giving any support to their wickedness; because His abhorrence of it and displeasure against it have already been sufficiently manifested in the sufferings of Christ. It was a sufficient testimony of God's hatred against even the greatest wickedness, that Christ, the eternal Son of God, died for it. Nothing can show God's infinite abhorrence of any wickedness more than this. If the wicked man himself should be thrown into hell, and should endure the most extreme torments throughout eternity, it would not be a greater manifestation of God's abhorrence of it, than the sufferings of the Son of God for it.
2. God may save any man, woman, or child without prejudice to the honor of His majesty.
No matter how much men have insulted God, no matter how much contempt they have shown to His authority; still God can save them, if He pleases, and the honor of His majesty does not suffer in the least. If God should save those who have insulted Him, without payment for the dishonor they have shown to Him, then the honor of His majesty would suffer. For when contempt is cast upon infinite majesty, its honor suffers, and the contempt leaves a darkness on the honor of the divine majesty, if the injury is not repaired. But the sufferings of Christ do, in fact, fully repair the injury. Let the contempt be ever so great, yet if so honorable a person as Christ undertakes to be a Mediator for the offender, and in the mediation suffers in His place, then it fully repairs the injury done to the majesty of heaven by the greatest sinner.
3. God may save any sinner whatsoever consistent with His justice.
The justice of God requires the punishment of sin. God is the Supreme Judge
of the world, and He is to judge the world according to the rules of justice. It
is not the duty of a judge to show favor to the person judged; but he is to
determine according to a rule of justice without departing to the right hand or
left. God does not show mercy as a judge, but as a sovereign. And therefore when
mercy sought the salvation of sinners, the question was, how to make the
exercise of the mercy of God as a sovereign, and of the exercise His strict
justice as a judge, agree together. And this was done by the sufferings of
Christ, in which sin was fully punished, and justice satisfied. Christ suffered
enough for the punishment of the sins of the greatest sinner that ever lived. So
that God, when He judges, may act according to a rule of strict justice, and yet
acquit the sinner, if the sinner is in Christ. Justice cannot require any more
for any man's sins, than those sufferings which Christ suffered. Romans 3:25,
26. “God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His
blood. He did this to demonstrate His justice; so He may be just and the one who
justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
4. God can save any sinner whatsoever, without any prejudice to the honor of His truth.
God has declared in His word, that sin would be punished with death, which is
to be understood not only of the first physical death, but also of the second
death-in the eternal Lake of Fire. God can save the greatest sinner consistent
with His truth in this Divine threat. For sin is punished in the sufferings of
Christ, inasmuch as He is our representative, and so is legally the same person,
and sustained our guilt, and in His sufferings bore our punishment. Some may
object, saying that God had said, When you eat of the forbidden fruit, then you
will surely die; therefore, the same person that sinned must suffer; and doesn’t
God's truth oblige Him to do that? I answer, that the word then was not intended
to be restricted to Adam alone. Adam most likely understood that his descendents
were included, whether they sinned in their own person or not. If they sinned in
Adam, their representative, those words, "When you eat,” meant, “When
you yourself eat, or if your representative eats,” then you yourself will
II. But, God may refuse salvation to any sinner, without prejudice to the honor of any of His attributes.
There is no person in their natural sinful state, whom God has determined to refuse to bestow salvation, that can ever cause any dishonor to any part of God’s glory. Let a natural person be wise or unwise, of a good or ill-natured temper, whether born of wicked or godly parents; let him be a moral or immoral person, whatever good he may have done, however religious he has been, how many prayers whatsoever he has made, and whatever pains he has taken that he may be saved; whatever concern and distress he may have for fear he shall be damned; or whatever circumstances he may be in; God can deny him salvation without the least criticism to any of His perfections. His glory will not in any instance be the least obscured by it.
1. God may deny salvation to any natural person without any injury to the honor of His righteousness.
If He does so, there is no injustice nor unfairness in it. God can take any natural man, whatever his case may be, God can deny him salvation, and throw him down into hell, and yet not be chargeable with the least unrighteous or unfair dealing in any respect whatsoever. This is evident, because all mankind have deserved hell: and it is no injustice for a righteous judge to inflict on any man or woman what they deserve. And since they have deserved condemnation, and have never done any thing to remove the liability, or to atone for the sin. They have never done anything which would obligate God not to punish them as they deserve.
2. God may deny salvation to any unconverted person without any prejudice to the honor of His goodness.
Sinners sometimes flatter themselves, that though the justice of God condemns them, yet it will not be consistent with the glory of His mercy. They think it will be dishonorable to God's mercy to throw them into hell, and show no pity or compassion on them. They think it would be very harsh and severe, and not becoming a God of infinite grace and tender compassion. But God can deny salvation to any natural person without any criticism to His mercy and goodness. That, which is consistent to God's justice, is not contrary to His mercy. If damnation is justice, then mercy may choose its own object. They mistake the nature of the mercy of God; they think that it is an attribute, which, in some cases, is contrary to justice. No, God's mercy is illustrated by it, as in the twenty-third verse of Romans, chapter 9, “He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory.”
3. God can deny salvation to anyone and never dishonor His faithfulness.
God has in no way obliged Himself to any natural man by His Word to bestow salvation upon him. Men in their natural condition are not the children of promise; but lie open to the curse of the law, which would not be the case if they had any promise to lay hold of.
III. God does actually exercise His sovereignty in men's salvation.
1. God exercises His sovereignty by calling a people or a nation, and giving them the opportunities of grace, and leaving others without them.
According to the divine appointment, salvation is bestowed in connection with the provisions of grace. God may sometimes make use of very unlikely opportunities, and bestow salvation on men who are under very great disadvantages; but He does not bestow grace wholly without any means. But God exercises His sovereignty in bestowing those means. All nations are by nature in like circumstances towards God. Yet God greatly distinguishes some nations and peoples from others by the opportunities and advantages which He bestows upon them.
The American Indians, who in our day (the 1700’s), live in the remote parts of this continent, and are under the grossest heathenish darkness, as well as the inhabitants of Africa, are naturally in exactly similar circumstances of sin towards God with us in this land. They are no more alienated or estranged from God in their natures than we are; and God has no more to charge them with, then He would us. And yet what a vast difference has God made between us and them! In this He has exercised His sovereignty. He did this long ago, when He chose only one people, to make them His covenant people, and to give them the opportunities of grace, and left all others, and gave them over to heathenish darkness and the tyranny of the devil, to perish from generation to generation for many hundreds of years.
The earth in that time was inhabited with many great and mighty nations. There were the Egyptians, a people famous for their wisdom. There were also the Assyrians and Chaldeans, who were great, and wise, and powerful nations. There were the Persians, who by their strength and policy subdued a great part of the world. There were the renowned nations of the Greeks and Romans, who were famed over the whole world for their excellent civil governments, for their wisdom and skill in the arts of peace and war, and who by their military prowess subdued and reigned over the world. These nations were rejected! God did not choose them for His people, but left them for many ages under gross heathenish darkness, to perish for lack of vision; and chose one only people, the descendants of Jacob, to be His own people, and to give them the opportunities of grace. The Bible tells us that, “God has revealed His word to Jacob, His laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know His laws” (Psalm 147:19, 20). Israel was a small, insignificant people in comparison with other people, but the Bible declares this about God’s chosen people, “The LORD did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). And neither was it because of their righteousness; for they had no more of that than other people. God says, “Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the LORD your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Deuteronomy 9:6). God shows them clearly, that it was from no other reason but His free electing love, that He chose them to be His people. That reason is given why God loved them; it was “because He loved them”-He simply chose to love them. (Deuteronomy 7:8). Which is the same as saying that it was agreeable to His sovereign pleasure, to set His love on them.
God also showed His sovereignty in choosing that people, when other nations were rejected, who came of the same ancestors. Thus the children of Isaac were chosen, when the descendants of Ishmael and other sons of Abraham were rejected. Likewise, the children of Jacob were chosen, when the descendants of Esau were rejected: as the apostle observes in the seventh verse, “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned’ [Romans 9:7]: and again in verses 10, 11, 12, 13. “Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad-in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls-she was told, "The older will serve the younger." Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" [Romans 9:10-13].
The apostle shows that the election extends not only to the persons of Isaac and Jacob over Ishmael and Esau; but also to their descendants. In the passage, already quoted from Malachi, God chooses nations, which were the descendants of Esau and Jacob; Malachi 1:2, 3. “‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD. ‘But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ ‘Was not Esau Jacob's brother?’ the LORD says. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals’” [Malachi 1:2, 3]
God showed His sovereignty, when Christ came, in rejecting the Jews, and calling the Gentiles. God rejected that nation who were the children of Abraham according to the flesh, and had been His special people for many ages, and who alone possessed the one true God, and yet God chose the idolatrous heathen Gentiles over them, and called them to be His people. When the Messiah came, who was born of their nation, and whom they so much expected, He rejected them. “He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him” [John 1:11].
When the glorious dispensation of the gospel came, God passed by the Jews, and called those who had been heathens, to enjoy the privileges of it. The Jews were broken off, that the Gentiles might be grafted in (Romans 11:17). “I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one” [Romans 9:25] And there are more children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband” [Isaiah 54:1]. The natural children of Abraham are rejected, and God raises up children to Abraham from stones. That nation, which was so honored of God, have now been for many ages rejected, and remain dispersed all over the world, a remarkable monument of divine vengeance. And further, God now greatly distinguishes some Gentile nations from others, and all according to His sovereign pleasure.
2. God exercises His sovereignty in the advantages He bestows upon individual persons.
Everyone needs salvation, and everyone is naturally, undeserving of it; but He gives some vastly greater advantages for salvation than others. To some He assigns their place in godly Christian families, where they may be well instructed and educated, and have Christian parents to dedicate them to God, and say many prayers for them. God places some under a more powerful ministry than others, and in places where there are more of the outpourings of the Spirit of God. To some He gives much more of the strivings and the awakening influences of the Spirit, than to others. It is according to His mere sovereign pleasure.
3. God exercises His sovereignty in sometimes bestowing salvation on the lowly and poor, and denying it to the wise and great.
Christ in His sovereignty passes by the gates of princes and nobles, and enters some cottage and dwells there, and has communion with its obscure inhabitants. God in His sovereignty withheld salvation from the rich man, who lived luxuriously every day, and bestowed it on poor Lazarus, who sat begging at his gate. God in this way pours out contempt on princes, and on all their glittering splendor. So God sometimes passes by wise men, men of great understanding, learned and great scholars, and bestows salvation on others of weak understanding, who only comprehend some of the plainer parts of Scripture, and the fundamental principles of the Christian religion. Yes, there seem to be fewer great men called, than others. And God in ordering it thus manifests His sovereignty. The Apostle Paul said, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are” [1 Corinthians 1:26-28].
4. God exercises His sovereignty in bestowing salvation on some who have had very few advantages in life.
God sometimes will withhold salvation from those who are the children of very devout parents, and bestow it on others, who have been brought up in wicked families. Thus we read of Abijah, the only good son of the wicked Jeroboam, and of a godly Hezekiah, the son of wicked Ahaz, and of a godly Josiah, the son of a wicked Amon. But on the contrary, of a wicked Amnon and Absalom, the sons of holy David, and that vile Manasseh, the son of godly Hezekiah.
Sometimes some, who have had obvious opportunities of grace, are rejected, and left to perish, and others, under far less advantages, are saved. Thus the scribes and Pharisees, who had so much light and knowledge of the Scriptures, were mostly rejected, and the poor ignorant tax collectors saved. The greater part of those, heard Christ preach many times, and saw Him work miracles from day after day, yet they were not chosen to receive salvation; and yet the woman of Samaria was chosen for eternal life, and many other Samaritans at the same time, who only heard Christ preach, as He occasionally passed through their city. So the woman of Canaan was elected for salvation, who was not of the country of the Jews, and only once saw Jesus Christ. So the Jews, who had seen and heard Christ, and saw His miracles, and with whom the apostles labored so much, were not saved. But the Gentiles, many of them, who, as it were, only briefly heard the good news of salvation, embraced those truths, and were converted.
5. God exercises His sovereignty in calling some to salvation, who have been dreadfully wicked, and leaving others, who have been moral and religious persons.
The Pharisees were a very strict sect among the Jews. Their religion was extraordinary. (Luke 18:11). They were not like other men, extortioners, unjust, or adulterers-that was their morality. They fasted twice a week, and gave tithes of all that they possessed-that was their religion. But yet, for the most part, they were rejected, and the tax collectors, and prostitutes, and openly vicious sorts of people, entered into the kingdom of God before them. (Matthew 21:31). The Apostle Paul describes his righteousness while he was a Pharisee, saying, “as for legalistic righteousness, I was faultless” (Philippians 3:6). The rich young man, who fell on his knees before Christ, saying, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”-this man was a moral person. When Christ told him keep the commandments, he said, with all sincerity, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” He had obviously been brought up in a good family, and was a youth of such agreeable manners and correct behavior, that it is said, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Still he was not chosen; while the thief on the cross, that was crucified with Christ, was chosen and called. God sometimes shows His sovereignty by showing mercy to the worst of sinners, on those who have been murderers, and blasphemers. And even when they are old, some are called at the eleventh hour. God sometimes shows the sovereignty of His grace by showing mercy to some, who have spent most of their lives in the service of Satan, and have little left to spend in the service of God.
6. God exercises His sovereignty, in saving some of those who seek salvation, and not others.
Some who seek salvation, as we know both from Scripture and observation, are quickly converted; while others seek for a long time, and do not obtain it. God helps some over the mountains and difficulties which are in the way; He subdues Satan, and delivers them from his temptations: but others are ruined by the temptations with which they meet. Some are never thoroughly awakened; while to others God is pleased to give thorough convictions. Some are left to backsliding hearts; others God causes to hold out to the end. Some are brought down from a confidence in their own righteousness; others never get over that obstruction in their way, as long as they live. And some are converted and saved, who never strived after salvation, as others who, in the end, perish.
IV. I come now to give the reasons, why God exercises His sovereignty in the eternal salvation of mankind.
1. It is agreeable to God's design in the creation of the universe to exercise every attribute, and thus to manifest the glory of each of them.
God's design in the creation was to glorify Himself, and to cause creation to discover the essential glory of His nature. It was fitting that infinite glory should shine forth; and it was God's original design to manifest His true glory. It was not His design to manifest all of His glory to the point where it would bring on great fear of His creatures; for it is impossible that the minds of creatures could comprehend it. But it was His design to make a true manifestation of His glory, such as should represent every attribute. If God glorified one attribute, and not another, such manifestation of His glory would be defective; and the representation would not be complete. If all God's attributes are not manifested, then the glory of none of them is manifested as it is: for the divine attributes reflect glory on one another.
Thus if God's wisdom was manifested, and not His holiness, the glory of His wisdom would not be manifested as it truly is; for one part of the glory of the attribute of divine wisdom is, that it is a holy wisdom. So if His holiness were manifested, and not His wisdom, the glory of His holiness would not be manifested as it is; for one thing which belongs to the glory of God's holiness is, that it is a wise holiness.
So it is with respect to the attributes of mercy and justice. The glory of God's mercy does not appear as it is, unless it is manifested as a just mercy, or as a mercy consistent with justice. Likewise, with respect to God's sovereignty, it reflects glory on all His other attributes. It is part of the glory of God's mercy, that it is sovereign mercy. So all the attributes of God reflect glory on one another. The glory of one attribute cannot be manifested, as it is, without the manifestation of another. One attribute is defective without another, and therefore the manifestation will be defective. Therefore it was the will of God to manifest all of His attributes.
The declarative glory of God in Scripture is often called God's name, because it declares His nature. But if His name does not signify His nature as it truly is, or does not declare any attribute, it is not a true name. The sovereignty of God is one of His attributes, and a part of His glory. The glory of God eminently appears in His absolute sovereignty over all creatures, great and small. If the glory of a prince is His power and dominion, then the glory of God is His absolute sovereignty. In this appears God's infinite greatness and majesty above all creatures. Therefore it is the will of God to reveal His sovereignty. And His sovereignty, like His other attributes, is manifested in the exercises of it. He glorifies His power in the exercise of power. He glorifies His mercy in the exercise of mercy. So also He glorifies His sovereignty in the exercise of sovereignty.
2. The greater the creature is, over whom God is sovereign, and the greater the extent of the creature’s power, then the more glorious is His sovereignty.
The sovereignty of God in His being sovereign over men, is more glorious than in His being sovereign over the inferior creatures. And His sovereignty over angels is even more glorious that His sovereignty over men. For the more noble the creature is, then the greater and higher does God appear in His sovereignty over it. It is a greater honor to a man to have dominion over men, than over animals; and a still greater honor to have dominion over princes, nobles, and kings, than over ordinary men. So the glory of God's sovereignty appears in that He is sovereign over the souls of men, who are so noble and excellent creatures. God therefore will exercise His sovereignty over them. And the further the dominion of any one extends over another, the greater will be the honor. If a man has dominion over another only in some instances, he is not as exalted, as he is in having absolute dominion over his life, and fortune, and all that he has.
So God's sovereignty over men appears glorious, that it extends to everything which concerns them. He may dispose of them with respect to all that concerns them, according to His own pleasure. His sovereignty appears glorious, in that it reaches their most important affairs, even the eternal state and condition of the souls of men. In this it appears that the sovereignty of God is without bounds or limits, in that it reaches to a matter of such infinite importance-eternal life. Therefore, God has determined to manifest His own glory, by exercising His sovereignty over men, especially over their souls and bodies, even in this most important matter of their eternal salvation. “God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden.” .
Let me close with five points of Application:
1. We learn how absolutely dependent we are on God in this great matter of the eternal salvation of our souls.
We are dependent not only on His wisdom to arrange a way to accomplish it,
and on His power to bring it to pass, but we are also dependent on His mere will
and pleasure in the matter. We depend on the sovereign will of God for
everything belonging to it, from the foundation to the very top. It was because
of the sovereign pleasure of God, that He designed a way to save some of
mankind, and gave us Jesus Christ, His one and only Son, to be our Redeemer.
Why did God look on mankind with favor, and send us a Savior, and yet never did the same for the fallen angels? It was simply because of the sovereign pleasure of God. His sovereign grace gave us the Bible, and the truths of Christianity. His giving of those blessed things to us rather than to others, His giving the awakening influences of His Spirit, and His bestowing saving grace, are all of His sovereign pleasure. When he says, “Let there be light in the soul of that person,” it is a word of infinite power and sovereign grace.
2. Let us with the greatest humility adore the awesome and absolute sovereignty of God.
As we have just seen, it is an eminent attribute of the Divine Being, that He is sovereign over the souls of men and women, and that in every respect, even in their eternal salvation. The infinite greatness of God, and His exaltation above us, appears in nothing more, than in His sovereignty. It is spoken of in Scripture as a great part of His glory.
Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I myself am He! There is no god
besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal,
and no one can deliver out of my hand.”
Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him.”
Daniel 4:34, 35, “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back His hand or say to Him: ‘What have you done?’
Our Lord Jesus Christ praised and glorified the Father for the exercise of His sovereignty in the salvation of men: when He said,
Matt. 11:25, 26. “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed
them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”
Friends, let us therefore give God the glory of His sovereignty, by adoring Him, whose sovereign will orders all things, seeing ourselves as nothing in comparison with Him. Dominion and sovereignty require humble reverence and honor of the subject. The absolute, universal, and unlimited sovereignty of God requires, that we should adore Him with all possible humility and reverence-He has our absolute eternal destiny in His hands and can dispose of us as He pleases.
3. Those who are have received salvation are to attribute it to sovereign grace alone, and to give all the praise to Him, who makes them to differ from others.
Godliness is no cause for glorying, except in God., The Bible says, “No one may boast before Him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:29-31). No one, by any means, in any degree are to attribute their godliness, their safe and happy state and condition, to any natural difference between them and other men, or to any strength or righteousness of their own. They have no reason to exalt themselves in the least degree; but God is the being whom they should exalt. They should exalt God the Father, who, before they were born, and even before the world was created, chose them in Christ, who then set His love on them, and gave them salvation.
If they ask, why God set His love on them, and chose them rather than others, if they think they can see any reason apart from God’s mere sovereign pleasure, then they are badly mistaken. They should exalt God the Son, who bore their names on His heart, when He came into the world, and hung on the cross, and in whom alone they have righteousness and strength. They should exalt God the Holy Spirit, who of sovereign grace has called them out of darkness into marvelous light; who has by His own immediate and free operation, led them into an understanding of the evil and danger of sin, and stripped them of their own righteousness, and opened their eyes to discover the glory of God, and the wonderful riches of God in Jesus Christ, and has sanctified them, and made them new creatures. When they hear of the wickedness of others, or look upon depraved persons, they should remember how wicked they once were, and how much they provoked God, and how they deserved to be left forever to perish in their sin, and that it is only sovereign grace which has made the difference. In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul the Apostle spells out many different kinds of sinners, the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, and homosexuals. And then in the eleventh verse, the apostle tells them, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The people of God have a greater reason to be thankful, and more reason to love God, who has bestowed such great and unspeakable mercy on them, strictly out of His mere sovereign pleasure.
4. We learn why we must admire the grace of God, that He would condescend to become bound to us by covenant;
That He, who is naturally supreme in His dominion over us, who is our absolute master, and can do with us as He pleases, and is under no obligation to us; that this same God should, as it were, relinquish His absolute freedom, and should cease to be sovereign in His dispensations towards believers, when once they have believed in Christ, and would, for their consolation, become bound. So that they can challenge salvation of this Sovereign; they can demand it through Christ, as a debt. And it would be dishonoring to the glory of God's attributes, to deny it to them; it would be contrary to His justice and faithfulness. What wonderful condescension is it in such a Being, to become bound to us, worms of the dust, for our consolation! He bound Himself by His word, His promise.
But He was not satisfied with that; but that we might have stronger consolation still, He Has bound Himself by His oath. The writer of Hebrews says, “When God made His promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for Him to swear by, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.’ And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of His purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, He confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:13-20).
Let us, therefore, labor to submit to the sovereignty of God. God insists, that His sovereignty be acknowledged by us, and especially His sovereignty over our own eternal salvation, a matter which so nearly and infinitely concerns us. This is the stumbling-block on which thousands fall and perish; and if we go on challenging God about His sovereignty, it will be our eternal ruin. It is absolutely essential that we submit to God, as our absolute sovereign, and the sovereign over our souls; as one who “has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and hardens whom He wants to harden.” .
5. And lastly. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God will guard those who seek salvation from two opposite extremes-presumption and discouragement.
Do not presume upon the mercy of God, and so encourage yourself in sin. Many hear that God's mercy is infinite, and therefore think, that if they delay seeking salvation for the present, and seek it later in life, that God will bestow His grace upon them. But consider, that though God's grace is sufficient, yet He is sovereign, and will use His own pleasure to determine whether He will save you or not. If you put off salvation till the end of your life, salvation will not be in your power. It will be as a sovereign God pleases, whether you shall obtain it or not. Therefore, seeing that in this matter you are so absolutely dependent on God, it is best to follow His direction in seeking it, which is to listen to His voice, which says, “Today, if you hear My voice, do not harden your hearts” [Psalm 95:7-8].
Beware also of discouragement. Take heed of despairing thoughts, because you are a great sinner, because you have persevered so long in sin, have backslidden, and resisted the Holy Spirit. Remember that, no matter what your case may be, no matter how great a sinner you are, God can bestow mercy upon you without the least prejudice to the honor of His holiness, which you have offended, or to the honor of His majesty, which you have insulted, or of His justice, which you have made your enemy, or of His truth, or of any of His attributes. Let you be what sinner you may, God can, if He pleases, greatly glorify Himself in your salvation. Amen.
Added to Bible Bulletin Board's Jonathan Edwards Collection by:
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